Online safety bill ‘ignores some types of child abuse’

The government’s plans for regulating social media platforms need to be urgently changed to prevent predators sharing the most “insidious” images of child abuse and violence against women and girls, MPs have said.

A committee analysing the draft Online Safety Bill said the legislation as it stood represented a “missed opportunity” to create a landmark set of laws to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”.

The MPs said the government still needed to address some types of content that were technically legal at present. One example is called breadcrumbing, where abusers post “digital breadcrumbs” to other abusers to show they have child abuse content they are willing to share. This can include paedophiles posting images taken before or after sexual abuse on social media: it looks innocuous to ordinary users but the malicious context is recognisable to another abuser.

The Online Safety Bill is the government’s attempt to regulate social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as any company that hosts content created by users and which can be accessed by others. Search engines are also being included in the bill’s remit.

The draft bill states that these companies will need to show a “duty of care” to their users. This will involve removing illegal content and activity, and ensuring children are not exposed to harmful or dangerous content. A subset of companies, predominantly social media giants, will also need to take action on content that is “legal but harmful”, such as some types of online abuse. If companies fail to show a duty of care to users, Ofcom, the regulator, will have the power to impose fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of global annual turnover, whichever is higher.

The digital, culture, media and sport committee issued a report saying the bill was vague about what counted as illegal content, “seemingly conflating criminal offences with civil wrongs”. It said the government should redraft the bill to state explicitly what types of “illegal content” it wanted to address, and which should be subject to the most stringent moderation measures.

The committee recommended that the bill should “reframe the definition of illegal content” to “explicitly add the need to consider context as a factor”, and to include activity such as breadcrumbing. It added that some types of online violence against women and girls that was legal at present, such as using deep-fake technology to make a woman appear naked, should also be outlawed.

Julian Knight, chairman of the committee, said: “Urgency is required to ensure that some of the most pernicious forms of child sexual abuse do not evade detection.”